PORTLAND, Ore. --
It takes teamwork to generate and employ the airpower needed to fly, fight and win. It’s always been that way in aerial warfare. Though pilots often receive their due credit for their work at the pointy end, members of the ground echelon don’t perhaps receive as much attention, nor do they ask for it. But the fighter pilots and P-47 Thunderbolts of the 371st Fighter Group would have never left the ground in the European Theater of Operations (ETO) were it not for the untiring efforts of the ground crews.
One of these unsung servicemen was Mr. Victor B. Kramer, originally from Chicago, Illinois, who served as an Armorer in the group’s 404th Fighter Squadron (404th FS).
He loaded the weapons the pilots were using in combat operations in the ETO (hat tip to Dick Jonas and his Gunplumber song). Specifically, Corporal Vic Kramer serviced a P-47 Thunderbolt in C Flight of the squadron, one often flown by 404th FS pilot 1st Lt. Jack B. Pitts, who authored the book “P-47 Pilot: Scared, Bored, & Deadly,” Pitts Enterprises Publishers, San Antonio, Texas, 1995 and 1997. (Note, Pitts was misspelled as Fitz in the interview transcription at link below).
A description for Victor Kramer’s Military Occupational Specialty (MOS, known as Air Force Specialty Code (AFSC) in the USAF today), is as follows from Army Air Forces Manual 0-35-1:
MOS 911 Airplane Armorer: “Inspects and performs 1st and 2nd echelon maintenance on all armament within the unit, and loads bombs and ammunition in aircraft. Periodically examines aerial machine guns and other aircraft armament and equipment such as aerial cannon, bomb racks, bomb release mechanisms, gun mounts, gun turrets, and pyrotechnics for cleanliness and proper functioning. Installs armament and equipment and checks their completeness prior to missions. Removes and replaces aircraft armament to be serviced or repaired. May remove and replace bombsights. Inspects, disassembles, cleans, repairs, assembles, and makes parts replacements to such weapons as .50 caliber machine guns, .30 caliber machine guns, 37mm cannon, rifles, carbines, and pistols. Uses depth gauges, and other hand or bench tools in making these repairs. Loads bombs on bomb racks of aircraft prior to missions. Completion of a course in aircraft armament at an Army school or equivalent experience required.”
For comparison, the modern equivalent to the old MOS 911 would be the Cold War-era AFSC 462X0 or the current AFSC 2W1X1, Aircraft Armament Systems, affectionately known by some as “Gunplumbers” and/or “Load Toads” and other terms of endearment.
A few years ago, Victor Kramer was interviewed about his military experience as part of Veterans History Project of the Library of Congress. The complete interview, giving one a sense of the war from an Armorer’s perspective, is available to read online at:
The P-47 Thunderbolt in the fighter-bomber role was a voracious consumer of munitions. With eight .50 caliber machine guns, up to 3,500 rounds of ammunition could be carried, which could be a lot of work for an armorer, though the amount of ammunition carried varied based on a particular mission’s requirements. There was a total gross weight limit for the aircraft which had to be considered.
Kramer remembered “I was assigned a particular aircraft in the C flight and my duties on it were to maintain the eight machine guns, four which were in each wing, and the three bomb racks, one under each wing, and one under the belly, So, we loaded more bombs. Sometimes we loaded GP General Purpose bombs which were 500 pounds. Other times we loaded frag (fragmentation) bombs which were designed to really go after ground personnel. And these were bombs that broke up under - broke up into many, many small pieces called fragments and was definitely targeted to the enemy ground forces. We loaded the bombs, fused the bombs. Depending on what type of mission was planned it would be determined as to what type of bombs we dropped. We sometimes even used napalm.”
An Armorers job involved a lot of weight-lifting as Kramer recalled “I had a lot of back trouble and I feel that that was because we were lugging around these hundred-pound machine guns or carrying a full ammunition box full of ammo…My job after the planes came back was to clean the machine guns, rearm the bombs on the various planes, mine as well as others, and reload the bullets in the wings for the -- for the machine guns and to load and arm the bombs.”
Armorers also made sure the guns were properly aligned in the aircraft as they were regularly removed for maintenance and then reinstalled. Each one had to properly aligned in what was called boresighting to enable them to converge at a certain point in space ahead of the aircraft a pilot would aim at in order to bring a concentration of fire to hit a target.
As Victor Kramer mentioned, the P-47 had three points underneath from which it could carry bombs, or alternatively, external fuel tanks (drop tanks) of different sizes. Again, the number and type of things loaded varied depending on the mission requirements. In the ETO, the armorers were very busy. For the 371st Fighter Group, wartime operations expended 4,167 tons of bombs and 5,390,321 rounds of .50-caliber machine gun ammunition.
So, a kudo to Victor Kramer for recording this interview for us all to enjoy and to preserve for posterity as he passed away on July 4, 2019 in San Diego, California. We encourage any other 371st Fighter Group and 142nd Wing veterans and families from more recent eras to document their record of military service for the family, and for sharing with others as well as future generations. This is an important thing to do.
Consider this quote from General Gordon R. Sullivan, former Chief of Staff of the U.S. Army, “World War II was the largest and most violent armed conflict in the history of mankind. However, the half century that now separates us from that conflict has exacted its toll on our collective knowledge. While World War II continues to absorb the interest of military scholars and historians, as well as its veterans, a generation of Americans has grown to maturity largely unaware of the political, social, and military implications of a war that, more than any other, united us as a people with a common purpose.”
Those who are interested can do something to mitigate the lack of awareness and knowledge in today’s generation about the contributions of those who have served in the military. We can document and make available any number of recollections, facts, artifacts, images from military service. For more information on how to do this as Victor Kramer did consider the Veterans History Project, which encompasses veterans and their stories from all generations: http://www.loc.gov/vets/